On the morning after his first inauguration, President Barack Obama asked his presidential valet, Cmdr. Samuel Sutton, USN, for advice on how to salute. The first black president had been taking flak from conservative commentators about his military bearing.
Sam and the President went into the greenhouse on the White House roof, where they stood face-to-face. I chose this moment as the opening scene for the memoir Sam and I wrote together (Born to Serve: The Trailblazing Life of Sam Sutton, Valet to Three Presidents).
“I asked him to salute. I saw that his upper arm hung down a bit rather than being held at the horizontal. I went through the process with him, step by step.
“For the next few minutes I demonstrated and he followed my lead. Now and then, I reached out to adjust the president’s hand or the angle of his arm. Pretty soon we were snapping salutes at each other like clockwork.”
This passage comes to mind when I think of the importance of establishing emotional resonance in memoir—a shared universal experience that bonds reader to writer. As a black man from the south, Sam has special expectations for the first president who looks like him.
“As President Obama and I saluted one another, I was in awe of how far I’d come. The president didn’t know that I had grown up in a house with no central heat and no hot water for baths or showers. That my family and I walked three and a half miles to church each Sunday and three and a half miles back because we didn’t have a car. That I picked tobacco for nine hot southern summers, from age 10 until I joined the Navy at 19 (and finally took the first hot shower of my life). But the President didn’t have to know these things, nor did I have to know much about his life, in order for me to feel a special bond with him as a fellow black man.”
It is the emotional resonance of this scene that keeps us reading, to find out how that special bond turns out over time, in the pressure cooker of the White House.